The Spirit of Kobe

THE buildings of Kobe, Japan, may not have been as resilient as expected. But the people certainly have been.

The numbers attached to the Jan. 17 earthquake continue to grow: more than 5,000 lives lost, 26,500 people injured, and as much as $100 billion in damage, at this writing. Running water is still in short supply; 300,000 remain homeless; the harbor, the second-busiest in Japan, is nearly shut down; and aftershocks temblor, 7.2 on the Richter-scale, continue.

The Japanese government is being criticized for reacting too slowly. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama did not learn of the quake until it was reported on television. The Japanese bureaucracy, so efficient in normal times, seemed unprepared for an emergency and not designed for quick, decisive action. At last, on Jan. 24, the government declared the area a disaster zone, freeing up funds to underwrite the rebuilding of public facilities. And it has declared tax breaks for victims whose losses will exceed payouts from private insurance.

While the Japanese stock market has taken a short-term hit, the economy is expected to weather the challenge. The needs of reconstruction may stimulate imports to help offset a just-announced record trade surplus of $121 billion for 1994.

Even as our hearts and prayers go out to the people of Kobe, we marvel at their courage, strength, and generosity. Homeless residents were reported to be sharing whatever food they had with passersby; instead of raising prices, shopkeepers actually cut them to help the needy; police reported almost no looting of abandoned stores.

There were countless stories of individuals responding to the need. That generous spirit extended to the local Korean minority as well as foreigners. Said Nagahata Noboru, the president of Kobe's gas utility company: ``I was thinking about retiring soon, but I want to do my best until our city returns to normal. [Recently] I worked 27 hours straight.''

Over time, Kobe's businesses and bullet trains will be repaired and its buildings will rise again. But the spirit of its people has remained unbroken.

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